Using Large Plants as Focal Point in Your Garden Design

Drama Queen Plants

Elephant Ears (Colocasia esculenta)
© Marie Iannotti

Every garden needs a focal point and large, dramatic plants fit the bill nicely, getting better every year. These drama queen plants will take center stage in any garden. You only need one to make an impact or use several as an eye-catching hedge.

Focal point plants are often described as architectural because they add structure along with impact. That's why you don't want too many drama queens in your garden design competing for attention. One well-chosen focal point plant sets the tone for the whole garden.

  • 01 of 07

    Butterbur (Petasites)

    Butterbur (Petasites)
    © Marie Iannotti

    Butterbur is an imposing plant, but it can easily spread and get out of control.  Given ideal growing conditions, Petasites can take off running. Only plant this if you're the type of gardener to keep your garden in check, However, butterbur is certainly a double-take plant. The leaves are huge and they seem to get larger as the plant gets wider. It's hard to believe butterbur is in the same family as the daisy. Unlike daisies, butterbur is grown for its large, fan-like leaves that can easily reach 3 ft. across. Petasites japonicus and Petasites hybridus are both popular with gardeners who have a damp or poorly draining area of the garden that they want to punch up. (USDA Zones 5 - 9)

  • 02 of 07

    Cohosh, Bugbane, Black Snakeroot (Cimicifuga racemosa syn. Actaea)

    Bugbane (Cimicifuga racemosa)
    © Marie Iannotti

    Cimicifuga looks more like a shrub than a perennial. It has large, lacy leaves that get lusher and lusher as the season goes on, with the plant growing 6 - 8 ft. tall and about 4 ft. wide. Toward the end of summer, Cimicifuga surprises you with bottle-brush flower spikes that can grow 3 or more feet long and last well over a month. (USDA Zones 3 - 9)

  • 03 of 07

    Elephant Ear (Colocasia esculenta)

    Elephant Ears (Colocasia esculenta)
    © Marie Iannotti

    Elephant ears aren't hardy perennials in cooler climates, but since they're grown from bulbs, they're easy enough to over-winter. The green varieties make a decent impact, with their over-sized, elephant ear leaves, but the chartreuse variegated varieties and the dark ones, like this 'Black Magic', are riveting. They make a particularly nice contrast with feathery foliage and airy spikes. Depending on your climate, Elephant ears can grow up to 5 ft. tall. (USDA Zones 7b - 11) Read

  • 04 of 07

    Giant Fleece Flower (Persicaria polymorpha)

    Giant Fleece Flower (Persicaria polymorpha)
    © Marie Iannotti

    It's easy to mistake Giant Fleece Flower with Goat's Beard (Aruncus dioicus). They both have feathery plumes that tower over you. Giant Fleece Flower actually has a very different growth habit than Goat's Beard, not to mention different leaves and flower heads. They both grow to stately heights in a single season and have white plumes, but Giant Fleece Flower has long, narrow, pointed leaves and the flower heads of large, fluffy panicles, top the plant, rather than shooting up out of it. Giant Fleece Flower blooms a bit earlier than Goat's Beard and remains in bloom most of the summer. (USDA Zones 5 - 9)

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  • 05 of 07

    Goat's Beard (Aruncus dioicus)

    Goat's Beard (Aruncus dioicus)
    Neil Holmes / Getty Images

    Goat's Beard plants are such an explosion of fullness, growing 4 - 6 ft. in either direction, it's hard to tell if they are a shrub or a perennial. The leaves are deeply cut and almost fern like. They're topped by feathery plumes starting in early summer and continuing for at least a month. All this and Goat's Beard grows in partial shade too. (USDA Zones 2 - 9)

  • 06 of 07

    Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium purpureum)

    Joe Pye Weed (Eupatorium)
    Mark Turner / Getty Images

    Joe Pye Weed is one of those native plants that doesn't get much respect until you see someone use it to perfection in their garden design. Could this be the same plant you see growing along roadsides? Yes and no. The cultivated Joe Pye Weeds are a lot easier to control in a garden setting. And they're worth it when you see those mop heads of mauve develop in mid- to late summer. They're such a great color to set of the other shades in a fall garden. Depending on the variety, Joe Pye will grow between 4 - 6 ft. tall. (USDA Zones 5 - 10) Read

  • 07 of 07

    Tall Switch Grass (Panicum virgatum 'Cloud Nine')

    Panicum virgatum 'Cloud Nine' (Tall Switch Grass)
    © Marie Iannotti

    Tall Switch Grass

    Pretty much any tall growing ornamental grass can be used as a focal point. Variegated Miscanthus, Pampas grass, and Indian grass would all make excellent choices. This tall switchgrass is just so uniquely eye-catching, you can't help but want to reach out and touch it. Granted, it starts the season like any other ornamental grass that's been cut down to next to nothing, but by mid-Summer, it truly is a cloud of inflorescence. The ruby color and the soft, floating flowers give it an impressionistic look. And it's deer resistant. 'Cloud Nine' grows to about 6 - 8 ft. (USDA Zones 4 - 9) Read